Archive for July, 2011

Wahoo Day

Overwhelmedness has been in my thoughts of late: folk being overwhelmed by life going too fast, by family or financial difficulties, by too much e-mail in their in-box. … I guess if Quakers are overwhelmed, then nearly everybody is overwhelmed. – Wendy Clarissa Geiger

I met Wendy when I attended Quaker meeting in Jacksonville, and I still receive her semi-weekly e-newsletter on life and poetry. This morning, when the news was filled with an overabundance of nonpeaceful things, she sent the message I quoted above, and added a snippet of information that I found fascinating. The Burmese, Wendy told us, “have Wahoo Day—an imaginary day falling between Wednesday and Thursday when one can get done what otherwise cannot get done during a given week.”

Today is my own Wahoo Day. My summer work schedule alternated a normal  work week with a week of four 10-hour days and Friday off. I used my free Fridays to read, write, sneak up on the laundry, poke around in the garden, and have lunch with Ernesto. Sadly, as the University cranks up for the start of a new academic year, today is my last Wahoo Day of the summer.

I believe that if we had the will, we could figure out a way to insert a worldwide Wahoo Day into the calendar. Ernesto was talking this very morning about how Leap Years are calculated, and other interesting problems that plague modern day-keeping. Time is fluid, after all, and what a source of peace it would be!

But until Ernesto can apply his mathematics and computer programming skills to devise a Wahoo Day without it requiring an act of Congress, I bring you Wendy’s poem about overwhelmedness: “The Want of Peace,” by poet-farmer Wendell Berry of Lane’s Landing, Kentucky.

The Want of Peace

All goes back to the earth,
and so I do not desire
pride of excess or power,
but the contentments made
by men who have had little:
the fisherman’s silence
receiving the river’s grace,
the gardener’s musing on rows.

I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire,
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.


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Daddy loaded the old paint cans and half-used insecticides into Granddaddy Sloane’s Ford pick-up truck to haul them to the county hazardous waste dump. He had to look up the location on the Internet since he’d never been there. “Yellin Avenue, then west on Commonwealth,” he said reflectively. “Dixie, want to ride shotgun?”

We drove with the windows down and the wind blowing in our faces, a practice that Mama deplores. The route to the dump interested us deeply, since it was all new territory. Driving further west on Commonwealth, the businesses dwindled. Daddy pointed out a two-story brick building with a sign mounted to the side. Framed by unchecked ivy, it read, “COLLECTORS OF ICE.”

Daddy grinned, delighted. “Look at that, Dixie! ‘Collectors of Ice.’ Now that’s a curiosity, don’t you agree? Mama is going to wish she’d come with us.”  

We continued westward on Commonwealth. “You know, there’s an unusual assortment of businesses down this particular road,” Daddy said. “And here we are at the Collectors of Hazardous Waste.” He pulled into the drive for the dump and gave a long, low whistle. 

I wished I could whistle. Instead my mouth hung slack. Then I remembered what Mama always says about catching flies and snapped it shut. I didn’t want a fly from this horrific hole to land in my mouth. The packed dirt acreage held filthy 55-gallon drums as far as the eye could see. Bright poisons oozed out the tops of these drums—or so it appeared to my dazzled eyes.

“Well, I’ll say this,” Daddy whispered low, “at least it’s a far-off ways from human habitation.” He set the brake, jumped out of the truck, and walked briskly toward the office, which being in a sawed-off sort of metal trailer looked like one of the larger drums had been set sideways on a cinderblock foundation.

I dreaded to see Daddy disappear through that doorway and was relieved when a man wearing green coveralls came out of the office to meet him.

The truck windows were down, so I received the full benefit of the foul air and heard Daddy’s greeting. “Buddy, I’m happy to see you looking so well,” he said. “I almost expected a one-eyed mutant to shuffle through that door.” Mama says Daddy’s extreme frankness is a curse, not a charm, but this man didn’t seem to notice or care.

They unloaded the items from the back of the truck, and Daddy paid the fee. When he climbed back in the cab of the truck, Daddy rolled up his window. “We’re going to get that nasty bad taste out of our mouths right now,” he said.

I didn’t see how; I sure didn’t feel like eating. The thought of drinking a quart of Listerine wasn’t entirely unappealing, but Daddy had something else in mind.

“Let’s go see that collection of ice,” he suggested. “That will be just the thing—something cool and beautiful to erase the image of the hazardous waste dump. Wonder do they sell little pieces for private collectors? I would dearly love to take your mama a nice ice sculpture back home. Of course, then we’d have to decide if we want to let it melt away, which would be philosophically satisfying and representative of the fleeting nature of beauty, or if we wanted to preserve it in the deep freeze.”

As we drove east he proposed that perhaps Commonwealth literally held a wealth of unusual treasures, pointing out that we already knew it led to collections of ice and hazardous materials. Perhaps, he mused, if we continued our explorations we would find yet more wonders along the way: an apothecary where mysterious potions were distilled, a library of books filled with arcane knowledge, a gallery of…. He was silent.

“Dixie, we’ve been cruelly misled.” Daddy had pulled into the crumbling parking lot of the Collectors of Ice. He pointed to the sign on the door: “Chappell County Tax Collectors Office.”

He bumped slowly around to the east side of the building, where the large letters were mounted on the side. The second F in OFFICE had fallen into the boxwood, and the words “CHAPPELL COUNTY TAX” were covered by rampant ivy. “Now that’s a bitter disappointment,” Daddy said, shaking his head. “Also, does the county not understand that the possessive requires an apostrophe? I am sickened by this, Dixie.”

Being Daddy, though, he was quick to turn mud into pies. We drove until we found a convenience store and spent $1.39 on a bag of ice, then we returned to the abandoned tax office.

He snapped several cell-phone pictures of me holding up handfuls of ice beneath the “COLLECTORS OF ICE” sign, with more ice heaped at my feet. I took some shots of him doing the same, and then we drove back home to show Mama everything she had missed.


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Bearing Witness

Daddy declared the old family barn too decrepit to remain safely standing, so we spent the weekend with Granddaddy Sloane while Daddy cleared it out prior to demolition. Granddaddy Sloane is Daddy’s grandfather. His little yellow house is surrounded by trees, a field with a cow pond, and the blue barn. He was against tearing down the old barn, but he was not given much of a say.

Daddy tucked a box of heavy-duty trash bags under his arm and we followed him to the barn. He swung the great doors open, and we all stood silent.

After a long look Mama said she and Bethany would sit inside with Granddaddy Sloane and comfort him in his loss. I offered to stay, and Mama made me put on heavy canvas gloves then told me not to touch anything. I wondered why, if I wasn’t to touch anything, those gloves were necessary. “Just keep them on,” she insisted. “You can handle anything that isn’t sharp, rusty, or splintery. Stay close to the open door, and keep an eye on your father.”

That went over fine. Daddy dearly loves an audience. He said, “Dixie can bear witness to my thoroughness and dispatch in clearing out this barn.”

The old tractor and other farm machinery had been sold and removed. Daddy walked inside the barn and took an inventory before beckoning me inside. Two rows of shelves beside the open door held empty brown glass bottles. Daddy held one of the bottles to the light. It appeared full of trapped clouds. “Granddaddy used to doctor his own cows,” Daddy explained. “See the lines on the side? Each represents a dose of oh, I don’t know, say, Osborne’s Celebrated Cow Purgative and Tonic. Dixie, hitch up your gloves and start putting the bottles into that empty box for me. Thank you, dear heart.”

Daddy began pulling out some of the more dangerous items and putting them in trash bags. He found a U-shaped length of pipe hanging on a nail, looked inside and said, “Frog! Should I blow him out?”

Before I could say no he proceeded to blow hard into one end of the pipe, sending not one but two tiny frogs sailing out the opposite end and through the door of the barn. They were the prettiest little things, like pieces of bright green jewelry. Quick as a wink they hopped back into the barn.

While I stacked bottles in the box, Daddy carried out cans of old paint and put them off to the side. We took a break when Mama brought us some lemonade. She asked how the job was going. Daddy had a cobweb tangled in one eyebrow and dirt on his forehead where he’d tried to swat it away. “I will admit that the charm has worn off,” he said.

When Mama returned to the house I told Daddy he ought to do like Tom Sawyer did, in the book he’d read to me over a year of bedtimes. “How so?” he asked. I reminded him about Tom whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence and how he convinced the other boys to help him. Daddy stared at me, walked into the barn and looked around, then came back out. “Dixie, you are my girl,” he whispered. He took out his phone, looked up a number, and made a call, walking off to stand in the shade as he talked.

After snapping his phone shut, Daddy grew lively again. He brought a few things from the barn for his keeper pile, including a little wooden stool that he dusted off with his hand and gave to me.

A pick-up truck pulled in and bumped over the yard to the front of the barn. A sign on the truck read, “Digby’s Architectural Salvage.” I sat on the little stool, and Daddy winked at me.

Daddy talked up a storm as he led Mr. Digby into the barn. When they came out, they carried an old wooden door between them and put it in the bed of the truck. They made several more trips before Mr. Digby stopped to make a phone call. Ten minutes later another truck pulled up, and two young men started hauling stuff out of the barn.

I looked up toward the house once and saw Mama come out on the back porch, watch the goings-on for a minute, and shake her head.

After the men drove away, Mama walked out from the house with more cold lemonade. “Not that you could possibly be thirsty,” she said, “seeing as how you contracted out the hard labor.”

“Selling is a thirsty business,” Daddy said. He finished counting a thick wad of bills and tucked it in his shirt pocket. “And you will be gratified to hear that no one was hurt, stung, bitten, or cut during this entire operation.” He took a long drink of lemonade, and added thoughtfully, “The little frogs might be tender for a day or two.”

He showed Mama the little old stool I’d been using, and said, “Granddaddy made that stool from a walnut tree that used to stand near the house. If this wood could talk, it might tell you the entire story of my misspent boyhood.”

Daddy carried the stool back to the house. Granddaddy Sloane sat in a recliner in the kitchen, watching Bethany in her portable playpen. Daddy set the stool down next to the recliner and straddled it. “Granddaddy,” he said, “the barn is cleaned out and you just made chunk of money. What do you think about that?”

Granddaddy took the wad of bills and looked at it. “You keep it, Frank,” he said. “You did the work.”

But Daddy scoffed and pushed the money away, said, “No, now, I mostly supervised, once Dixie explained the right way to handle the job. This is yours. I’ll carry it to the bank for you. Now I would love to have this walnut stool, if that’s all right.” He stood up and lifted the stool to show Grand-daddy, who reached out a twisted hand to touch it. His hand curled around one leg.

“Must the old barn come down, Frank?” Granddaddy Sloane asked.

Daddy’s voice gentled. “Yes, Granddaddy, it really must.” For a long minute they stayed like that, Daddy holding the stool by one leg, Granddaddy Sloane holding another. I saw the old long-away-gone walnut tree grow between them to shade the kitchen. A boy sat in a fork of the tree reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but the top of the tree was growing fast, bursting through the kitchen ceiling and reaching up into the blue sky until I couldn’t see the boy at all among the thick green leaves, so far up above had it grown. The roots of the walnut tree cracked the kitchen floor tiles and reached deep into the dark earth below the foundation of the house, curling and spreading wide with a rumbling sound.

I thought I must be asleep and dreaming, but I knew that my heart was awake.


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A Small Rain Garden

The day turned purple-dark, forcing streetlights on and befuddling the fireflies with a false dusk.

I turned on the lights in every room, moving purposefully to ward off the pressing shadows. When the clouds burst, runoff sluiced around the river stones of my rain garden, down a trough of weeping grass, over a shoal of white pebbles.

The storm blew out quickly; soon nothing was left to feed the rain garden except a steady titration from the oak tree. Pools mirrored the sun’s return, and with the sun came Hank and Jonas to my back door. “Can we play in your rainwater garden?”

“As long as your mother knows you’re here.”

Hank nodded solemnly. “We can play here until 3:00 if you don’t mind.” Jonas already squatted beside the largest pool.

“Today’s the longest day of the year,” I said. Hank nodded, politely uninterested, and joined his brother by the pool.

The storm had wrung all the heat from the day. I wouldn’t know when it was 3:00; none of my clocks worked. I walked through the house to turn off the lights, raising the windows to allow rain-freshened air inside.

Let’s pretend to be sailors, and these leaves are our boats,” Hank instructed.

Their voices—sometimes words, more often a music like wind chimes—washed into the house. I took deep breaths.

Let’s pretend we’re Lewis and Clark. We’ll go downriver, and find some Indians to help us.”

At Hank’s age, I cut windows and a door in a shoebox and set it up under the shade of a morning-glory arbor. I created elaborate landscapes around my little house, using flowers and mosses, devising trees out of small branches. Time flowed easily around me. I was fully employed in work that I loved, so absorbed that the sun seemed to stand still in the sky.

Today is the longest day of the year!”

The day had been terribly long already: we had gone through one entire morning, simmered through midday, experienced an early, unexpected dusk complete with fireflies, then found ourselves back in the same afternoon. The oak tree dripped, regular as a metronome. Three o’clock was probably miles away.

I know what, Jonas! Let’s pretend we’re soldiers fighting pirates on the river.”

I drew another deep breath of rain-cooled air as Jonas said, “Why can’t we just pretend to be ourselves?”


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"Gimme a chaw."

Earlier this year a North Carolina state legislator proposed that the state adopt its own currency. My sister, who lives in NC and keeps me up-to-date, told me that some political observers in the state had taken a keen, if unkind, interest in the idea of a new state currency and were running a contest to name it. She thought that any North Carolina currency should include the word “fried” in its name.  I take her point, and I believe that it is based in part on her fondness for the wide variety of delicious fried doughs available at the North Carolina State Fair. In fact, fried dough might be a good term for this currency, seeing as how dough is already a slang term for cash. But after giving the matter a good 10 minutes of careful thought, I believe that I have come up with several even better choices. They are:

1.  A pone (short, perhaps, for pone sterling). I take cornbread nearly as seriously as money, and a good pone is hard to find. But what symbol would replace the dollar sign—something shaped like a hush puppy? Maybe it would be better to use a sort of tricked-out capital P, like the ¥ for Japanese yen.

2.  A bass (the fish, not the instrument, although that could be a contender, too). A tiny, vertical fish symbol could replace the dollar sign, or maybe a fish hook shape. One advantage to this name is that it automatically inspired an excellent name for counterfeit currency:  stinkbait.

3.  A chaw. Tobacco was historically an important part of North Carolina’s economy, so this name makes a certain amount of sense. But I only thought of it because just last week, out of the blue, Ernesto drawled, “Gimme the chaw, and you keep the plug.”

I looked at him. “Where in the world did that come from?” I asked. He usually gets his Southernisms from me, but this one smacked of a much deeper-South influence.

He replied, “Huckleberry Finn.”

So now I’m convinced that North Carolina should simply call its currency a Finn—or maybe a Huckleberry. But they better get on it right away, else Missouri will decide to print its own currency and snatch it up first.

I should note that while the rest of the Tar Heel State dallies, Pittsboro, NC already prints its own currency! Let’s go to the University of North Carolina’s Wilson Library and hear from Neil Fulghum, Keeper of the North Carolina Collection Gallery, who has some wonderful information on this money, charmingly called the Plenty

“First issued in 2002 by an incorporated, non-profit organization in Carrboro, the Plenty’s purpose is to support local commerce and safeguard area jobs through the use of a community-based currency. … Plenty notes, which are printed with soy-based inks on a watermarked paper composed of recycled bamboo and hemp, feature very colorful decorative elements and the motto ‘In Each Other We Trust.’ As far as imagery is concerned, all three denominations of the Plenty carry the same large oak tree and landscape on their faces. Their backs are distinguished by insets of local scenery and images of trout lilies, the eastern box turtle, and great blue heron.”

Recycled hemp! You could almost call the Plenty a chaw.

Illustration: The Project Gutenberg eBook of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Part 5 by Mark Twain (www.gutenberg.org).

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